The Associated Press

Suit Challenges N.H. Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone

CONCORD, N.H. — A conservative Christian law group that successfully sued to block abortion clinic buffer zones in Massachusetts has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to strike down a 25-foot buffer zone that became law in New Hampshire last month.

Alliance Defending Freedom announced Tuesday it filed the lawsuit on behalf of several abortion opponents who say the buffer zone violates the free speech rights of abortion protesters.

“Americans have the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman said in a statement. “That includes peaceful pro-life advocates who just want to offer information and help to women who would like it. The Supreme Court recently affirmed this vital freedom, which has been an essential part of American life since the nation’s founding. New Hampshire’s law suffers from the same unconstitutional problems as the one the Supreme Court struck down.”

Jennifer Frizzell, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said the agency has no plans to put a buffer zone around any of its health centers.

“We continue to evaluate the Supreme Court ruling, as well as patient protection laws around the country, to ensure that women can continue to make their own health care decisions without judgment from strangers and abusive and physically threatening protesters and without fear of harassment or intimidation,” she said.

Alliance Defending Freedom filed the Massachusetts lawsuit that led to last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down that state’s buffer zone. The unanimous ruling noted that authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with confrontations or other problems that can arise outside clinics.

Abortion rights supporters say the buffers are needed to protect women and clinic workers from harassment. The law was drafted in response to protests and picket activity at Planned Parenthood’s health center in Manchester where, its supporters said, more than 60 patient complaints had been logged since the beginning of 2013.

The lawsuit filed Monday says the law unfairly allows clinic escorts, but not protesters, to talk to women within the buffer zone.

“New Hampshire has created an expansive anti-speech zone that cannot survive constitutional scrutiny,” said Michael Tierney, one of the lawyers allied with ADF.

Gov. Maggie Hassan’s spokesman said the attorney general is evaluating the lawsuit but the state believes its narrower law will withstand constitutional scrutiny.

“Bipartisan majorities of the New Hampshire House and Senate believed we needed to take action to ensure that women could access health care free from harassment, obstruction or threats to safety, and Gov. Hassan will continue to work toward meeting that goal,” spokesman William Hinkle said.

The law differs from Massachusetts’ in that it gives individual clinics the flexibility to set up their own buffer zone of up to 25 feet but potentially less. As of Tuesday, no clinic had posted a buffer zone, Hinkle said. The legislation requires the center to notify local officials first.

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